January 2013 Live It! Project Report
Clark Bledsoe & Vinod Malwatte, The Importance of Marine Mammals and the Need for Community-Based Conservation, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka
As global citizens, members of an expansive community, we are concerned with social, political, and cultural affairs--both local and international-- that affect the environment, and the relationship between humans and the environment. We have a duty to apply our skills to impact and inform our community through written and visual media. With our project, we aim to document the endangerment of dugongs (large marine animals related to manatees) off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, and initialize an education/awareness program addressing their importance to the ecosystem and the needs of the local fishing communities, while also educating investors in the region about the critical need for community-based conservation.
During the first few days of our fieldwork we realized several potential problems to the successes of our project. At the time, Sri Lanka was experiencing a freak weather situation with torrential downpours throughout the country that created floods in certain parts. The excessive outpour of freshwater from rivers into the ocean created upwells that reduced the visibility in the water. With the rains continuing for a couple of days, we decided it was in our best interest to refocus our project away from the dugong because these conditions made the chances of spotting even one very low. Secondly, we learned that the dugong numbers were extremely low in Kalpitiya. We initially planned to make a 6 hour boat trip north to an area called Vankalai. Here the chances of seeing a dugong are higher for a couple reasons: lower numbers of fisherfolk fishing dugong and the large presence of seagrass beds of the species preferable to the dugong. However, if we had gone through with the trip, it would have cost us half of our budget and a week’s worth of time. With no certainty of capturing footage of the dugong, we decided to refocus the emphasis of our project.
Motives of the new project included raising awareness on the current status/plight of the dugong in the Dutch Bay and Portugal Bay regions (two bays included in the Kalpitiya region) while also documenting the biodiversity of the various ecosystems at risk from proposed developmental projects. We conducted interviews with several members of the local fishing industry as well as those who are more outspoken against development projects. We also secured interviews with officials from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Indian Oceans Marine Affairs Corporation to further comment of the proposed development of Kalpitiya. The end product will result in the formation of an educational documentary that covers the aforementioned motives.
Most generally, accomplishments included the documentation of the project site’s biodiversity and documentation of 11 out of the 14 islands located in the proposed tourism developmental zone (mangroves, undulating sand dunes, grassland, sandbars, estuaries). Other documentation included the Red Cliffs on the banks of Willpattu National Park, Willpattu National Park, The Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary (underwater footage of reef life), and the famous Dolphin Feeding Channel (underwater and overwater footage). This Dolphin feeding channel is frequented by 3’000 to 5’000 dolphins, and is considered a major tourism attraction in the region. We conducted interviews with 3 groups of various fishermen from different islands, an owner of an icehouse on an island, Chairman of the Holy Cross Fishermen’s Co-Operative Society, and the owner of an eco-resort located in the region. Upon our return to Colombo, we conducted interviews with the Head of the Business and Biodiversity Program, Asia for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a senior marine researcher at IUCN who is also Head of the Mangroves for the Future Program (MFF), and lastly, the Chairman of the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Corporation (IOMAC).
Through surveying the area we realized that the environment in the region is complex and that a balanced connectivity between the diverse ecosystems is crucial for the well being of region. Through speaking with knowledgeable officials, we realize there is room for small- scale development projects on the islands. The building of large structures however would not only have adverse effects on the ecosystem and immediate environment, but would also be economically a poor investment because of the shifting nature of these sandy areas due to natural erosion.
In regards to the indo-pacific dugong, if the animal were to be seen in the Dutch Bay and Portugal bay regions today, it would be a rare sighting. Through visual surveys and interviews conducted with fishermen, dugong sightings are practically non-existent in this region. Marine mammal officials offered more optimism about spotting the dugong to the north of Kalpitiya, in the waters of the Gulf of Mannar. The decline in dugong sightings in Kapitiya (Dutch Bay and Portugal Bay) can be attributed to destructive fishing practices such as the use of gill nets, purse nets and dynamite fishing. In the recent decades, an increased number of fishermen in the area has led to over fishing of the waters, thereby causing a decline in fish, cetaceans and marine life.